Even though it's designed to make the roadways safer, hands-free technology that's included in cars can still distract drivers, even when their eyes are on the road and their hands on the wheel, a new study says.
Even more worrisome, that distraction can linger up to 27 seconds after the driver has finished making a call, tuning the radio, or composing a text via voice commands -- more than enough time for a driver to blow through a stop sign or slam into a car braking in front of them, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety says.
"You're engaged in some kind of voice-based interaction -- you're kind of in this distraction bubble. When you hang up, it takes time for that to clear, time for you to re-establish the awareness of the driving environment,” said David Strayer, a professor of cognition and neuroscience at the University of Utah, who co-authored the study.
That means that in 25 mph zones like schools and hospitals, drivers can zoom along the length of three football fields in that time without even realizing they’re preoccupied, according to the study.
"Where are you, how fast are you going, are there other pedestrians or bicycles you need to look out for -- all of that additional information you need to process is what you've not been doing while you're multi-tasking," Strayer added. “We don't multi-task very well.”
But not all hands-free systems are created equal. According to AAA, the technology in cars like the Chevy Equinox and Buick Lacrosse are significantly less distracting than the systems in cars like the 2015 Mazda 6 or Hyundai Sonata.
"First and foremost, the driver's primary job is to focus full attention on the job at-hand: driving,” Mazda said in a statement to ABC. “Our newest and most advanced system, known as Mazda Connect and seen in the heavily revised 2016 Mazda6 and all of our 2016 lineup, incorporates lessons learned from the previous-generation system that AAA tested. The Mazda Connect system has been well-received by both consumers and news media alike.”
“Given the relentless pace of technology advancement, we're always looking for new ways to make that interface between user and machine smoother and more intuitive," they added.
In a statement, Hyundai said it is "dedicated to minimizing visual and manual distraction by providing an experience that keeps drivers’ hands on the wheel and eyes on the road."
"We will analyze the data from this report and see if improvements need to be made," the company says. "We’d like to work with AAA in the future on their methodology as we believe there are ways of making this study more meaningful."
Not surprisingly, less intuitive, error-prone systems tend to be more distracting, the study said. Though practice helped drivers adjust to the systems, it does not eliminate distraction.
Wade Newton, a spokesperson for the Auto Alliance, which represents several of the automakers cited in the study, said he hasn’t yet had the opportunity to fully review the study, but looks forward to doing so.
“I can tell you that we already know that voice operation allows drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road; two things that are critical to safe driving,” he said in a statement, noting that an NHTSA study demonstrated that visual and manual distractions increased crash risk.
Hyundai said it "is dedicated to minimizing visual and manual distraction by providing an experience that keeps drivers’ hands on the wheel and eyes on the road."
"We will analyze the data from this report and see if improvements need to be made," Hyundai said.
Other automakers named in this story did not respond or declined to comment.